Team Building: Get off the Bench

I liked playing soccer and being part of the team. I didn’t mind being on the bench. The reality was I was relieved to be on the bench because the bench was safer than showing I wasn’t very good…risking personal or team embarrassment. The bench didn’t make me a better player, so naturally my skills didn’t increase. My fear had won the day. By my senior year, I left my shin guards and cleats behind. Safe from fear, but I was far from being a team player.

Does your team (or do you?) have a ‘satisfied to sit the bench’ problem?

Hey there Team Leaders! Is someone on your team looking like they are seeking the safety of playing the bench when you would rather have them contributing their talents to the team? What is happening to your team with a teammate bench-warming? I can tell you it affects the progress of the team more than you might know.

How about you Managers? Are you finding that your depth chart has just one or two names you go to, even though you have more than two people on your team? What’s keeping you from engaging the rest of your team?

And Team Members, does this story describe you? Notice that this soccer story is NOT about a lousy coach or lousy teammates. Success of the team starts with each person. Are you hanging out on the bench? Maybe it’s not fear, but rather stubbornness, or excuses like leaving it to someone better, or thinking that you don’t have the right authority. Face it, those look a lot like the reasons I decided that the bench was the best place to be safe…or stubborn…or let others play the game.

How do we get people (or ourselves) off the bench?

To create an engaged team, it’s going to mean that every member needs to be connected to purpose and people, be able to create value and see that value contributed to the purpose. These simple yet profound words are our lens here at eNthusaProve to see inside team dynamics and diagnose where to work. We have found them to be a powerful lens over our many years of developing, facilitating, and leading teams. We are going to apply this lens in the “case studies” of being a Team Member, Team Leader, or Manager.

This is a lot of content, so to make it digestible, this is a 3 part series. Whether you find yourselves as leaders, managers and members of teams, there will be something for you in each one. Each post will focus on just one part of the connect, create and contribute recipe through the eyes of each of the three roles.

  • Post 1 will focus on what it means to connect to purpose and people. (We need to connect to the team and the game more than to our excuses to sit the bench.)
  • Post 2 will build on connect, adding in ways to improve how to create value. (This is get off the bench and play time!)
  • Post 3 will continue the build on connect and create, adding how to contribute that skill. (This is where we score the goal!)

And here’s the first one!

Team Leader Connection Building:

You’ve got team members who want to go it alone, or want to sit it out. They have their arms crossed and they are more than content to watch others work while they figuratively sit the bench. If they are especially obnoxious, they’ll shoot darts at the work of the active players. Gee, as if sitting the bench wasn’t bad enough, these folks make it seem like every game is an away game at a hostile stadium!

The big symptom here is that they appear to be disconnected from the purpose and or the people. You have to listen carefully to their gripes and whines to discern which one it is. Here’s some common scenarios with tips on how to respond.

  • “I don’t have authorization to…” Could be either.
    • Connection to people version is likely a conflict from the past brought into this project. It’s a sticky situation that will need diagnosis and action on your part.
    • Connection to purpose version is likely a unwillingness to take a risk to make a hard call on a project. It’s worth trying to understand what the holdup is, because this climate can bring the whole team down.
  • “But <so-and-so> is so good at it.”  Probably a connection to people issue. Reevaluate team roles and either make changes or reinforce why they are the best person for it.
  • “I don’t want to help because of someone involved.” Most likely a connection to people issue. This requires some conflict resolution and careful team building, if it is necessary to get these people working together.
  • “I don’t believe it is worth the effort.” Connection to purpose. This person usually doesn’t see how the vision will be accomplished either due to too many roadblocks or too little drive to succeed. Dig into which one it is to know if you need to clear the path of roadblocks or encourage them to achieve.
  • Avoiding taking responsibility or task ownership. This could be fear like my soccer story or it could be they don’t really want to do the project. Fear would lead you as the Team Leader to find ways to encourage the teammate or put them on tasks they are comfortable with to get them going. If they don’t want to do it, it may be best to get them off the team.

Manager Connection Building:

Chances are, you resonated with the Team Leader situations and you also have additional factor to contend with… time. A Team Leader has a finite time that the team is available to work a project, where you have to consider growing your people for the long term. If your people are hanging out on the bench, it isn’t helping them grow in experience and expertise, which doesn’t increase the depth chart of your team.

What can you do?

Take some time to think about what keeps them on the sidelines.

  • Is it them?
    • Skills Gap – They don’t know how to do something. Training to the rescue!
    • Lack of Desire – There’s not belief in the project or the team. This takes some investigation to know whether to clear a roadblock, or encourage to take the hard road.
    • Conflict – There’s something going on between team members causing one or both to step onto the sidelines. Conflict is a cancer that eats away at a team, so deal with it before it spreads.
  • Is it you?
    • Trust?  Your bench sitter might be sitting because you haven’t entrusted them with responsibility. Do you think they are too green, they’ve failed before, or you just can’t see their value to what you’ve got to do? Ouch. Be careful of your own assumptions here. You aren’t doing someone any favors by keeping them on the bench. Get to know them better and get them involved or invest in them enough to find a better fit for them.
    • Get to know your team
      • Do I know things about my people that aren’t on their resume? (e.g. cool outside hobby, struggle they overcame in life, family life, causes they are passionate about)
      • What is something that gets them excited, fired up, energized?
    • Get people connected.
      • Connected to each other. You need to make it explicit why the team has the players it does. You need to be make sure every name has a place on the RACI chart.
      • Connected to the purpose. Go get the Project Plan or List of Responsibilities. You need to vet that more fully with your team. Chances are there are promises in that plan that this bench sitter has a big problem with.

Team Member Connection Builders:

Did you know the end of life regrets that hospice workers say they hear all the time? People don’t regret that they had arguments, they regret they never reconciled…connected back with people. Also, people don’t regret what they tried and failed at…they regret what they never tried! So I ask you, is the reason you are on the bench more important than contributing to the success of your team?

Here are some thoughts to think about why and how to get up off the bench and in the game.

  • Connect to my Teammates.
    • Do you have a healthy professional rapport that you trust them to do what they say they will do? Get to know these people. Go out to lunch or have coffee. Learn something about them. Suggest some team building.
    • Do my teammates allow for discussion of ideas, or are they shot down with impunity? Be someone on the team who encourages discussion. Don’t accept idea bullying. Be willing to talk to the leadership about issues you feel are hindering discussion, because it will hinder progress (Research proves it).
  • Connect to the Purpose
    • Do you care? If you don’t really care if the work happens or not, then maybe you need to find a different project. Maybe a meeting with a Team Leader or Manager to discuss what value you bring to the team can help.
    • There’s too many roadblocks! If the project has a lot of challenges ahead, it’s easy to get discouraged and want to sit out. The effort doesn’t seem worth it. Write down the roadblocks. Sometimes they are big monsters in our heads when in reality they aren’t that bad. If they still look big when in black & white, discuss them with Teammates or Leadership.

What makes it worth it?

My journey as a team member on my soccer team didn’t go very far.  Eventually, in other areas of life, I had to learn to get off the bench and try. What got me to take the risk? A strong desire to achieve, to prove I could do it (to myself and others).

What was the reason for you to commit to a team in your life?

There are times I regret all that time I wasted being fearful of failure, but this too is being used for good now. If you find yourself or your teammates on a bench (out of fear, stubbornness, or whatever), I hope these ideas help you think through how to approach and encourage the teammate (or yourself) to get off the bench and involved in that project. Your team needs you!

Stay tuned for our next post, to include suggestions for getting teammates off the bench and creating value.

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